When Wayland Stewart saw the white clapboard church on the morning of April 28, 2011, it had been lifted off its foundation and shifted sideways. Its steeple was blown off and lay in the churchyard.
The EF-4 tornado (EF-5 is the worst possible) had wreaked significant damage to Shiloh Church of the Nazarene in the Shiloh community near Higdon, Ala., between 4 and 5 p.m. the day before.
But the worst, for the community at least, was not at the 85-member church on County Road 155 on Sand Mountain. Within 1,000 feet of it, six people were dead. Within a mile of the church, 11 lost their lives.
No church members were killed, but some of the dead -- from the tornado that was a mile wide at one point and had winds of 190 mph -- were in the extended families of church members.
"I began to get phone calls from people who live in the area," said Stewart, who lives in Chattanooga. "I sent parishioners [to check out the damage]. The roads were blocked until the next morning."
So significant was the damage, so changed was the landscape, he said, that DeKalb County Sheriff Jimmy Harris, who had patrolled the area his entire career, told him it took him a while for him to get his bearings.
Last month, on Aug. 5, the church dedicated its new sanctuary and fellowship hall and celebrated the renovation of the lunchroom of the former Shiloh School that previously served as the church's fellowship hall.
"We worked up to the last minute," said Stewart, who's been pastor for five years, "but we did make it."
The cost of the new facilities, he said, was about $225,000. The congregation received more than $200,000 from insurance money.
In addition to the insurance, Stewart said, the church had help from a nondenominational missions group, from a Nazarene missions team from Wisconsin, from the Church of the Nazarene Disaster Relief (through the denomination's Alabama North District), from foundations, from volunteer labor teams and from individuals.
The buildings, including the 6,200-square-foot sanctuary that seats 150, a "nicely equipped" fellowship hall and the former fellowship hall that has been converted to an educational building, were dedicated debt free, Stewart said.
"We received significant support from the community," he said. "A number of people gave who are not a part of the church. It was significant for them for the church to be there."
That, Stewart said, is because the property's roots date to the school that existed when the church was built adjacent to it in 1946. The school, he said, was eliminated in the 1960s when several schools were consolidated.
The congregation relocated to a rented building after the tornado but moved quickly to occupy its new unfinished metal-siding building in time for Easter service on April 8. That was done, he said, because the last service it celebrated before the tornado was Easter, which fell on April 24, in 2011.
There were still doors to put up, trim to finish and other things to be done, Stewart said, but the new-life symbolism of Easter was hard to pass up for the church and for the community.
The congregation even added the word "community" to its name and is now Shiloh Community Church (of the Nazarene).
"It was more of a coming together," Stewart said. "We wanted to let [them] know we rebuilt and are there for the community as a whole."
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Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...